Depths and Densities: a Bugged Report


Depths and Densities: a Bugged Report

This text, Depths and Densities, constitutes the report of a workshop of the same name that Femke Snelting, Helen Pritchard and Jara Rocha conducted during transmediale 2019 as part of their long-term project Possible Bodies. Possible Bodies, a disobedient action-research project, works with “the body” as a complex, concrete, and at the same time fictional entity. Moreover, its participants analyze it in the context of technological infrastructures and techniques such as tracking, modelling, and scanning. In text report, Jara Rocha compiles voices and quotes from the experiences of the workshop: a trans*feminist experiment in which open-source applications for geo-modeling were collectively examined, especially in relation to various regimes in which geo-modeling operates—regime examples are truth, representation, language, or political ideology. Referencing the aim of the workshop, to disrupt and redirect the extractivist tendency of tools for earth surveyance and calculation, the report is written in the form of a “bug report.”


Possible Bodies is an ongoing collaborative research on the technical and lively tensions between so-called bodies and volumetric practices.1 The inquiry is ready to emerge at any possible intersection that lies between two vectors. One vector is constituted by physical bodies that might be somatic or not, human or not, isolated or not, named or not. The other vector is tensed by the calculation the volume bodies occupy with their very presence in space, being virtual—made of bits—or physical—made of atoms.

The project aims at problematizing the concrete and fictional entities that “bodies” are, in the context of 3D tracking, modelling, rendering, calibrating, and scanning operations towards them. Such operations have perhaps grown in sophistication and speed within the digital realm, but are certainly not new. The particular contemporary topology of volumetrics draws from intricate genealogies of many knowledge clusters of modernity (perspective setting procedures, occupation measuring techniques, scale calibration tools, average volume normalizing, position prediction methods). Protocols and paradigms proliferating and circulating confirm the limitations of how, when, where, and why bodies could or should be considered and measured. In other words, there is a continuum that facilitates the smooth flow of very specific volumetrics (and not others) from architecture to border surveillance—passing through the spectacularization of sports, biomedical practices—to the juridical, the military, and the pornographic. The technoscientific conditions for the smoothness of this flow constitute the rigidity of mere probable trajectories along the continuum of volumetrics and restrict the wild twists and surprising hacks needed to jump from the probable to the possible!

Of course scale affects the mathematics of presence very strongly. Take the scale leap from individual somatic corpo-realities (of, say, zoologically recognized organisms) towards the so-called body of earth. Quite a jump evidences how the infrastructural complex of geo-operations such as mining and the measuring of soil depends on software tool siblings such as those used in the biomedical realm (like tomography), but adapted to a different field for geological data handling, interpretation and 3D-visualization. Such tools power both bio-medical imaging and techno-colonial subsurface exploration and keep corpuses of knowledge persistently affecting each other. In Possible Bodies there is an interest in attending to how these parallel technical developments contribute to a crystallization and standardization of such operations.

Under the guise of a one-afternoon workshop at transmediale 2019, Possible Bodies invited a group to collectively study open-source tools for geo-modelling while attending to the different regimes—of truth, of representation, of language or of political ideology—they operate within. It attempted to read those tools and a selection of texts in relation to one another, with the plan of injecting some resistant vocabularies, misuses and/or f(r)ictions that could affect the extractivist bias embedded in the computation of earth’s depths and densities. The workshop was a trans*feminist2 experiment and proposed to compile a “bug report”3 as an act of affirmative responsibility taking for this turbocapitalist momentum.

It was a hands-on situation that took the Gplates software platform as a case study. Gplates is an interactive plate-tectonics visualization program and an open-source application software that visually reconstructs very complex datasets of use for the geophysicist community.4.This platform was chosen as the affected, affective, and perhaps effective infrastructure to converge around—and attend to—for the workshop, while triangulating its visions of the Earth with software technology and bits of critical theory.

The Depths and Densities workshop was populated by a mix of known companions and just-met participants (in total, a convergence of circa 30 voices), each bringing her own particular intensities regarding the tools, the theories, the vocabularies, and the urgencies placed upon the table. The discussions were recorded on the spot and transcribed later. This publication cuts through a thick mass of written notes, transcriptions, and excerpted theoretical texts, sedimented along five vectorial provocations: on the standardisation of time, on software vocabularies, on the activation of geontologies, on the computation of velocities, and on the techniques of 3D visualizations. Each vectorial provocation was taken up by a sub-group of participants, who assumed the task of opening up a piece of the Gplates whole (such as a technical feature, a forum, a tutorial, an interface etc.) and tensioning it with some text matter from a reader pre-cooked by Helen Pritchard, Femke Snelting, and myself. The platform worked as a catalyst for our conversations and hence its community of developers would eventually become deferred interlocutors of a report.

The following cut was made to share a sample of that afternoon’s eclectic dialogues in what could be transferred as a polyphonic bugged report.5

Age Grid

First vectorial provocation, on standardized time

if multiple timescales are sedimented in contemporary software environments used by geophysics,
can fossil fuel extractivist practices be understood as time-travelling practices?

in these troubling times, there is an urgency to trouble time, to shake it to its core, and to produce collective imaginaries that undo pervasive conceptions of temporality6

this urgency is both new and not new

how is the end of time imagined, in a modelling sense?

we see discretely plotted colours

time isn’t what it used to be

does the body of earth exist in the same timescale you do?

or try and witness the whens otherwise

time tends to be limited to (and influenced by) the observer’s perception but what are the material and semiotic conditions for another kind of time perception?

sedimented time and coexistence
at ecologies of nothingness (aka voids)

voids are features that occur commonly in near-surface geophysical imaging. (…) However, voids are often misidentified. Some voids are missed, and other anomalous features are misinterpreted as voids, when in fact they are not. Compare them with real voids, and we determinate the differences based on incomplete data7

Second vectorial provocation, on software vocabularies

forging a differently fuelled language of geology must provide a lexicon with which to attend the geotraumas

the endurance of a stony patience that doesn’t forget love8

user engagement with the earth through a 3D visualization software is based on metaphors like handling or grabbing

in the lexicon of geology that takes possession of people and places, delimiting the organization of existence, the refusal of such captivity makes a commons in the measure and pitch of the world, not the exclusive universality of the humanist subject

you can still grab the earth:
at Gplates a stable static earth is available for grabbing

a refusal to be delimited is found in the matter of the world and a home in its maroonage; “they wander as if they have no century, as if they can bound time… compasses whose directions tilt, skid off known maps”

also, the use of the verb “to grab” brings with it the history and practice of “land grabbing”, land abuse and arbitrary actions of ownership and appropriation with correlated both dispossession by the taking of land, and environmental damage

but what if
the earth grabs back?

there is a kind of reason that we will no longer accept

tilting the axis of engagement within a geological optic and intimacy, the inhuman can be claimed as a different kind of resource than in its propertied colonial form—a gravitational form so extravagant, it defies gravity

if all the semantic network of Gplates is based on handling and grabbing as a key gestures in relation to the body of earth, a loss of agency and extractivist assumption slip in too smoothly, and too fast

forging a new language of geology must provide a lexicon with which to take apart the Anthropocene, a poetry to refashion a new epoch, a new geology that attends the the racialization of matter

most software platforms allow for no resistance,
for no possible unavailability

the praxis of that aesthetic
locates an insurgent geology

middle click and drag
¡la tierra para quien la trabaja!9

reconstituted in terms of agency for the present, for the end of this world and the possibility of others, because the world is already turning

and what if
the earth grabs back

the ghosts of geology rise

Third vectorial provocation, on the activation of geontologies

we are all talking over each other
like tectonic plates and strata

a time of the geos, of soulessness10

looking at what geology is
implies a reconsideration of assumptions of what
life is

the anthropos as just one element in the larger set of not merely animal life but all Life as opposed to the state of original and radical Nonlife

minerals rocks plates

the vital in relation to the inert, the extinct in relation to the barren

cannot be separated from time

it is also clear that late liberal strategies for governing difference and markets also only work insofar as these distinctions are maintained

but where is the legend we could not read it

Life (Life{birth, growth, reproduction}v. Death) v. Nonlife

why this suspension
subversion of the living

why this suspension
subversion of the living

it is hardly an uncontroversial concept

otherwise the future will keep being missing
but wait, the past is also missing
the line goes back to 172 million years but earth is 4,5 billion years

the way data gets laid over particular shapes, how that comes to kind of operationalize particular makings and matterings of the world,11

a color-coded chronology
is that tone the year of emergence
or is it duration
of collapse of merging

so kind of thinking through the technical and political questions of what is depth and what is density, how they shift depending on the situation they’re operationalized within

a gradient of abstraction is being dangerously portrayed

the differences perhaps of the densities in geophysics to the densities in something like biomedical scanning, even though both might have tomographic processes

what is the skin of a body
its density
how is it colored?

density is not a fixed thing

but why?

we’re interested in exploring these open questions; how these matter, and how they matter in relation to things like surfaces and their topologies, where there might be densities of power

a chroma chart would be appreciated

there’s a kind of thickness in imaginaries of depth: the kind of unknown or unreachable, the removed or the unremovable. But also the kind of dark and morally crooked in bodies, in earth and in desires

like absolute dating of rocks
you’re alive, I’m alive/let’s go

but other imaginations of depths in relation to both the earth or the so-called body, or the body of the earth. In particular, the thinking with the kind of writing from geo-philosophy and feminist technoscience, which might suggest that we might tilt the axis of engagement

peel earth’s skin
the mantle

i think that’s at heart of the Possible Bodies project as well, this tilting of access to a different kind of optic

and peel it back where 4D is time and meets 5D

to a different kind of intimacy

it does not peel back enough

think about the inhuman of earth surfaces, of tectonic plates, of geological strata; they might have another possibility than the proprietal colonial form, which often is the way it gets rendered within things like the modelling tools for say the extraction of fossil fuels or natural gas

Geontologies: the need of all bug reports

Fourth vectorial provocation, on computing velocities

that is too linear
this is too straight

data has different densities and intensities
and the effects and affects of the single timeline make themselves visible

when specific intra-active technologies violently rendered real bodies, they wondered about the see-through space-times that were left in the dark12

leaving grey areas that show
no data coverage

the crisis of presence that emerged with the computational turn was shaped by the technocolonialism of turbocapitalism!

where is that information
what is this superfiction

convoked from the dark inner space-times of the earth, the flesh and the cosmos, particular [amodern] renderings evidence that real bodies do not exist before being separated, cut and isolated.

whole parts of grey earth
like you are making a cake
you can put toppings on

grey means there is nothing such as a body of earth
it is almost a void

they read, listened and gossiped
with awkwardness, intensity and urgency

earth used as a template
for almost always fractured data

listen: there is a shaking surface, a cosmological inventory, hot breath in the ear

zoom in this shaking surface
and always find some cracks

the tool keeps wanting it
to be presented as a whole
the oneness of earthness
as in the oneness of humanness

there is a persistently imposing paradigm of wholeness
and a pretension of full resolution
but a body becomes any body only if the whole thing collapses

but when

[the soil] is no longer (or never was)
the exclusive realm of technocrats or geophysics experts

swipe it fast
so much time in one swipe

it is almost rude

these are your new devices, dim and glossy

take your time
scroll scroll
scroll deeper

where poetic renderings start to (re)generate (just) social imaginations


let’s collectively resonate against technologies

counting backwards
and year zero does not stay

grab that time

perhaps if you upgrade the software you can get extra time

that bring in transfeminist queer futures

Fifth vectorial provocation, on the techniques of 3D volume visualization

who is behind
the proposers of the Mercator13 projection

postcolonial or hegemonic structures of development14

who is behind one more eurocentric view of it

“the centrality of mathematical and technological science… structured by masculinist ideologies of domination and mastery”

from 2D to 3D

such institutional, cultural, and scientific practices also affect glaciological knowledge

you are the camera!

Questions of who produces glaciological knowledge, and how such knowledge is used or shared, take on real implications when considered through feminist postcolonial science studies and feminist political ecology lenses

At Gplates you can replace the pole location
grab the pole and drag it

indigenous accounts do not portray the ice as passive,
to be measured and mastered

while time happens
along a linear highlight
of cascading data

folk glaciologies
diversify the field of glaciology
and subvert the hegemony of natural sciences

Gplates applies deep familiar metaphors like child plates

Of the Earth, the present subject of our scenarios, we can presuppose a single thing: it doesn’t care about the questions we ask about it15

slide the zoom
in and out of a data set of magnetic information

to speak of a world which is “prior” and “independent” without implying that it is “single” and “determinate”: it encounters an earth which is very much “already composed” without it thereby being “already totalized”16

the pole

having “a stable identity” in relation to scientific study
does not imply stasis or stability per se

deeper down

but how when where
but who what why

In the process of working on the Possible Bodies project, the urgency to consider the implications of making “disobedient action-research” made itself intensely evident. All questions emerging around the main vectors of inquiry on the political constraints of body volumetrics expose a key need to not comply with disciplinary methods, tools, languages, media nor scales. Instead, the invention of situated rigor should be made on the go, as well as a sharpening of the ongoingness of the research interlocution. This is the reason why we chose to pay attention to the very particular piece of writing a bug report is: it operates as a performative document that in itself is always already activating a change in the environment it inhabits. Technically, the fragments above still don’t compile a bug report. This is why I consider it fundamental to at least take the five vectorial provocations of the workshop and gather some open questions and potential research paths to move on, in case they can slide into the interlocution machinery otherwise. These include:

How could the material and semiotic conditions of possibility associated with softwares like Gplates be reissued for a collective problematization of the imaginaries and conceptions of temporality?

What would constitute an appropriate set of tools for a widening of more complex, non-fixed agencies that go beyond technocracy, perhaps also inviting participation fuelled by intersectional sensibilities, other curiosities and/or urgent struggles?

There seems to be a pendant task in strengthening the understanding of software-making as worldmaking, and an urgent need to visualize and represent earth phenomena without augmenting the values of universalism. For this to happen, we first need to train ourselves to better identify and problematize the non-innocent matrix of regimes—of truth, representation, economy, and ideology—that converge in scientific software environments.

Software Resources

Gplates Download

Gplates Webportal

Magnesium Picks


EMAG2 Magnetic Anomaly Grid

GPlates Markup Language (GPML)

Gplates Tutorial 7.1: 3D Volume Visualisation Importing and Visualising 3D Scalar Fields

EarthByte Gplates Portal Geology

G.plates on fictional planet

GPlates Tutorial 1.1: Loading and Saving Data

Enhanced Shuttle Land Elevation Data

  • 1.
  • 2. We name it trans*feminist in order to convoke around that star (*) all possibly needed intersectional and intra-sectional aspects. In this case, a trans*feminist lens is sharpened by queer and anti-racist sensibilities, and oriented towards (but not limited to) trans*generational, trans*media, trans*disciplinar, trans*geopolitical, trans*expertise, and trans*genealogical forms of study.
  • 3. Bug reports are a particular kind of document written and emitted with the aim of fixing a software problem. The receiver is an agent capable of technically intervening in the functioning of the program and hence bug reports can be understood as one of the key performative devices in software development processes.
  • 4.
  • 5. All text injections (in italics, on the right side) are quotes taken from the workshop’s reader. All pieces following one already quoted belong to the same author, until next quote in italics appears. All voices on the left emerged along the workshop’s discussion, which was transcribed by Fanny Wendt Höjer.
  • 6. Karen Barad, “Troubling time/s and ecologies of nothingness: on the im/possibilities of living and dying in the void,” New Formations 92: Posthuman Temporalities (2018).
  • 7. David C. Nobes, “Pitfalls to Avoid in Void Interpretation from Ground Penetrating Radar Imaging,” Interpretation. 6. 1-31. 10.1190/int-2018-0049.1. (June 2018).
  • 8. Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).
  • 9. Emiliano Zapata (c.1911)
  • 10. Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Geontologies: A requiem to late liberalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
  • 11. Excerpts from Helen Pritchard’s oral intro to the workshop
  • 12. Possible Bodies feat. Helen Pritchard, “Ultrasonic dreams of aclinical renderings,” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No. 13 (2018).
  • 13.
  • 14. Mark Carey, M Jackson, Alessandro Antonello and Jaclyn Rushing, “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research,” Progress in Human Geography, 40(6), 770-793 (2016).
  • 15. Isabelle Stengers, The Invention of Modern Science (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).
  • 16. Nigel Clark, “Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet” (London: SAGE Publications, Published in association with Theory, Culture & Society, 2011), pp. 38-39.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email